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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Little Lent
December 15, 2011

The church year has three extended “special” seasons – Advent, Lent, and Easter. Protestants have only recently had these seasons on our radar. In fact, Protestants of my generation grew up identifying Advent and Lent as “Catholic” things – and therefore something we ought to run from as hard as our legs could pump. And “Easter” was for us a day, not a season.

But over the past generation we Protestants have come to appreciate the value of the church’s special seasons in helping us with Christian living. Each of these seasons is a forty-day period of preparation for a fresh encounter with God. Lent is a forty-day preparation for the Cross, and Easter is a forty-day preparation for the coming of the Holy Spirit. But Advent…isn’t that just thirty days? There are only four Sundays in Advent, after all. However, in the most ancient eastern Christian traditions, Advent in fact does span forty days, and is often called “Little Lent.” The Western Church has reduced the season to thirty days, but in the Eastern Church the tradition of a forty-day Advent remains.

The number 40 is a highly significant number in the Bible, associated with purification. It begins in the ancient story of Noah, where the earth was cleansed by a flood that lasted forty days and nights. The people of Israel wandered for forty years in the desert during the Exodus, as God prepared them for life in the Promised Land. Jesus spent forty days and nights in the wilderness of temptation in preparation for his ministry, then took forty days with his disciples after his resurrection to prepare them for life after his departure.

Each of the forty-day special seasons in the Christian year is a time of special attention to the disciplines of Christian transformation. The first and foremost such discipline is repentance, which means literally changing our course. These are seasons of course correction, of getting ourselves back on track as disciples of Jesus. They call us freshly to devote ourselves to seeking first God’s kingdom. One way we do that is to cease doing things we ordinarily do to satisfy ourselves – a discipline known as “fasting.”

As a “little Lent,” Advent has been historically constituted, like Lent, as a season for fasting. We have yet to recover that aspect of Advent in the Protestant world. The best we have tried to manage so far is to “fast” from Christmas carols during Advent – a practice that some have termed “liturgical abuse.” Surely there is a more important fast to be undertaken than simply waiting until Christmas Day to sing Christmas songs! So, what sort of fast does Advent call us to undertake?

Jesus’ parable of the “wise and foolish virgins” (Matthew 25:1-13) depicts bridesmaids maintaining readiness for the coming of the bridegroom by keeping some oil in reserve for their lamps, rather than burning it all out without regard to the future. Perhaps this gives us a clue to the nature of Advent fasting – we choose not to spend everything we have for the sake of the moment.

An obvious way to apply this amid the frenzy of Christmas shopping is to restrain ourselves from spending all that we have in trying to buy that which cannot ever be purchased by money, namely the love of friends and family. Advent could well be a fast from dissolute spending in all aspects of life, not just Christmas gifts. Unbridled spending is an act that says, in effect, the thing that matters most to me is to gain all I can gain for myself now. “Who says you can’t have it all?” the old TV commercial taunted us, and we ran to the bank to borrow all we could to purchase their car. Advent calls us to deny our craving for immediate gratification, because we know that what lies ahead for people awaiting the Kingdom is infinitely better than the best world we could possibly create for ourselves, even if we had limitless wealth to spend.

Looking for a better world,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery

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